Participatory Public Art

Putting the “Public” in Public Art

A new era of public art is collaborative, viral, and above all participatory.

Traditional public art is an interesting contradiction in terms—one that often has very little to do with the public, says Andrew Shoben, founder of Greyworld, a London-based artists’ group that creates installations in public spaces.

“It’s usually installed at a physical distance that separates it from the public, and in most cases is built as a monument that can be viewed. But you can’t touch it, sit on it, or interact with it,” says Shoben. Often, it’s also set at a philosophical distance from the viewer. “A monument of a man on a horse represents a moment in time,” adds Shoben, “but it’s a moment before most of its viewers were born or could even connect to.”

But today, public art is no longer confined to static memorials poised in stone or metal.  An emerging new world order of public art encourages—even urges—the viewer to participate. It encompasses group collaborative creations of a singular artwork, art that is ephemeral or even intentionally destroyed, or art that only becomes “complete” as its viewers participate within its structure. 

Rendered mechanically, electronically, or in the form of public performances or interactivity, public art is increasingly people-centered and intensely expressive of our times.  It’s also contributing to a new definition of the term “placemaking.”

Civic pride

Public art is an increasingly important element of cityscapes. Vital public art can be an effective tool for cities as they try to differentiate and market themselves, says Liesel Fenner, ASLA, manager of Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network (Washington, DC), which holds an annual conference and provides resources for artists and those managing public art programs.

“In the last few years, PAN has seen an expanding interest in public art from many communities and parks around the U.S. We’re seeing that expansion from many sectors, from nonprofit organizations to temporary festivals to local Percent for Art programs, all of which see public art as part of their civic mission.” Fenner estimates that, across the board, communities’ participation in public art has increased 3 to 5 percent since 2003. 

“With this momentum, artists are gaining a broader interest in the context that their creations serve—as a catalyst for more art within the community where they live. It becomes a cycle.”

Fire in the desert

One of the most on-the-edge public art groups is Burning Man, whose eponymous art event is held each Labor Day in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Covering five square miles, it is considered the largest outdoor public art event in North America. Attendance in 2007 reached 47,500.

Burning Man inspires several hundred artists whose work is placed in the vast desert gallery. Some participants help complete the building of the art on-site, while others visit and interact with it. Some of the epic-scale artworks are then destroyed in ritual conflagration.

Although fewer of the event’s big artworks are burned than in the past, the inspiration for the art-burning is both spectacle and community, says Christine “Ladybee” Kristen, art curator for ARTery, Burning Man’s art component. “Essentially it’s the urge to create a huge fire in a safe environment.”

Kristen’s group awards grants to help artists create and install their work. In 2006, ARTery awarded 40 of that year’s record 300 installations a total of $425,000 in grants. The work that does not go up in flames is held in storage or recycled into new artwork, and the nonprofit Black Rock Arts Foundation looks for opportunities to exhibit it, says Melissa Alexander, BRAF executive director. “We're about using public art as a channel for community participation and dialogue, and we’re always looking to share these works with new and larger audiences."

Stan, Submerging Man, created by Northern California artist Finley Fryer for Burning Man 1999, was one such BRAF installation. The 18-ft. tall sculpture of a human-shaped diving suit weighs at least a ton, and was built entirely from recycled colored vinyl demo records and reclaimed plastic toys. Stan has appeared in county fairs and festivals in California and was recently temporarily placed in San Francisco’s Victoria Manalo Draves Park.

Park(ing) Day

Particularly in urban spaces, public art is a function of the relationship between the artwork and its location. Today, public art often challenges the very notion of public space and placemaking. Rebar (San Francisco) is an interdisciplinary group of artists, designers, and activists whose project Park(ing) Day has become a kind of viral public art as well as a living social commentary.

Park(ing) Day began in San Francisco as an experiment in establishing a temporary park out of a metered parking space. "The challenge was to see if we could successfully re-program a metered parking space for other kinds of activities that serve a broader range of public interests," explains Matt Passmore, one of Rebar’s founders.

In the first Park(ing) Day effort, Rebar marked off a parking space with a symbolic barrier (rope and some traffic bollards), then unrolled some sod and set up a park bench and a tree. Finished, they left the temporary “public park” open for people to come and use. The event inspired worldwide media coverage, and Rebar received inquiries from artists, architects, urban planners, designers, and social activists around the world interested in setting up a Park(ing) Day in their city.

By 2007, Park(ing) Day had gone international, with more than 200 temporary parks created in major U.S. cities as well as in London, Bremen, Barcelona, Munich, Melbourne, and Vilnius (Lithuania). Park(ing) Day artists not only temporarily took over parking spots, but added other “conversations,” including a free health clinic, demonstrations of sustainable agriculture, a free massage center, and other public services. 

The success of Park(ing) Day is probably due to the fact that it allows people to “take back” urban space that has been dominated so long by cars, says Passmore. “The automobile dominates so much of our lives and our use of urban space. It has evolved from a symbol of personal freedom to an object of artistic critique. The possibility of liberating some of the space (even temporarily) touches a chord in urban activists and became too tempting a target to resist."

Public art in the netherworld

Public art can also inject a sense of play into public spaces, enlivening the “nether zone”—those spaces in between where people live, work, and socialize. That’s the milieu of Greyworld, one of Great Britain’s most active contributors to public art.

Greyworld installed Monument to the Unknown Artist in London in late 2007. Sited beside the Tate Modern, the 20-ft.-tall sculpture looks at first glance like a traditional bronze statue of a man in a loose suit and scarf, a paintbrush poised as he sizes up the world around him. But as people walk by, it subtly moves to stare at them, or even winks. As passersby discover the statue is responding to them, they react by striking poses, which the statue attempts to mimic. Often a free-for-all ensues, with passersby competing for the statue’s attention.

The mimicry is made possible by a combination of video cameras, gesture-recognition software, and robotics. The effect is either creepy or magical, depending on the viewer’s perspective. But in any case, it allows people to interact with the art and hopefully have some fun doing it, says Andrew Shoben, Greyworld’s founder.

“Our goal is to design an installation that allows people to be creative within that space,” says Shoben. “One of the lovely side effects of installing successful public art is how much and how quickly a sense of place emerges as people start to react and interact with the artwork."

Bridging social barriers

More than a monument to times past or homage to a person or special theme, public art in the 21st century is becoming a bridge that transcends social barriers. As technology increasingly pulls us toward computer-driven interfaces and creates the potential danger of social isolation, an emerging genre of public art seeks to bring us together through art.

Rebar's Park(ing) Day challenges the notion of public/private space with its parking spot liberations, the Unknown Artist invites its viewers to play, and, at Burning Man, public art is international, epic, and often ephemeral—but always a product and function of the participating community.

--By Louis Brill, segdDESIGN No. 20, 2008



Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network

Burning Man

Black Rock Arts Foundation





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